A stocky, middle-aged woman trudges through Europe toting a plastic Calvin Klein bag full of irrefutable evidence of Russian atrocities. Zainap Gashaeva (aka Coca) has made it her dangerous occupation to document the war in Chechnya from the side no one ever sees. Eric Bergkraut’s film follows this mother of four as she hacks through a wall with an ax to retrieve a hidden videotape or sits down with grieving women to tape-record their testimony as to how their sons died. Strong human-rights docu has a real shot at limited theatrical play.
The systematic annihilation of the Chechen people by Russian troops has gone largely unreported, in part because Chechnya has been closed off to journalists and international observers. On her rounds, Coca connects with a hidden network of Chechen women with their own caches of carefully labeled tapes and photo albums of the dying and the dead. Entrusted by her countrywomen with these meticulously gathered accounts, she delivers them to European human-rights organizations to be cataloged and entered in their computerized databases. Once archived, these testimonials are sometimes joined by tapes of abuses sent in by Russian soldiers, sickened by what they had, at first, boastfully camcorded.
Helmer Bergkraut offers little historical context for the decades-long battle for Chechen independence, an ongoing conflict characterized by brutality on both sides. Coca makes no attempt to justify the terrorist activities of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and his followers. Rather, she highlights the state-sanctioned violence that hides under the all-encompassing anti-terrorist umbrella, allowing a nation to violate standards of decency by targeting a whole people as potential insurgents.
The contrast is startling between the raw emotion of eyewitness descriptions of atrocities (Coca’s voice quavers as she recounts filming a young boy’s last breath) and the matter-of-fact minutiae of everyday life among activists.
Camera familiarizes viewers with the homely circumstances of people who might be “disappeared” at any moment, including a family friend who is abducted during the course of Bergkraut’s documentary. Docu also highlights a Moscow-based Russian journalist reporting on Russian abuses in Chechnya who has survived death threats and a recent poisoning attempt.